Cologne Christmas Markets
There are so many amazing Christmas Markets to choose from in Europe. Last year we launched a grand tour hitting markets in Nuremburg, Heidelburg and Trier. This year we decided to stay closer to home and do a two-nighter down to the Cologne Christmas Markets. We traveled with our friends Larissa and Simon and their kids.
Cologne has six major markets, all with a different theme. We managed to visit five of them. There are also a bunch of smaller markets that are worth checking out, particularly if you are there to shop.
We arrived in Cologne on Friday evening. We checked into the Marriott, which we picked for its proximity to the train station and the markets. We ended up driving down, due to timing, but we could have easily hopped on the train as well (Delft-Utrecht-Cologne via NS then ICE). The hotel rooms were huge offering us plenty of space to play and sleep. (We usually bring our own beds for the kids like the Phil & Teds Crib and the Diono Travel Bassinet.) The staff was wonderful. We did run into a small issue where all day Saturday we found ourselves locked out of our room every time we returned and even had a young couple be given keys to our room and they attempted to come in while we were settling the kids to sleep. This was finally resolved and we were given access to the club level as compensation. The basement of the Cologne Marriott has a kid-friendly lounge.
Once we were settled in on Friday we headed straight to the Cathedral Christmas Market.
The kids were lured in by a ride and then we quickly got lost amongst the stalls. Both families had single strollers plus carriers for the kids. This meant that the five kids were easily contained when necessary.
The Cathedral Market features a large stage that always seemed to have something going on. On Friday evening there was a band from Amsterdam playing. The largest crowds were right in front of the stage, but the music can be heard from all around the market. We enjoyed perusing while listening.
The Cologne markets had the largest selection of hand crafted items I’ve seen at the Christmas Markets so far. Check out these beeswax candles! The lady had the molds in the back and was happy to show the kids how they were made.
The kids loved finding the Santa statues around the Cathedral Market. We took our picture with a few of them.
Around the corner, under the large candle fan was a market just for food. (There are also plenty of food stalls scattered throughout the Cathedral Market.) We were not quite hungry yet so we just had a quick peek before walking on.
We had dinner at the beer hall Fruh Ah Dom, just behind the Pixie’s Fountain. This place always looks crowded as you pass through the bar, but at 5:30 there was no wait for a table. It was quite warm inside and we were really bundled up so it took a while to get everyone down to the appropriate layers and seated. The menu is full of German specialties, all of which tasted delicious. Kolsh beers will continue to come until you place your coaster over the top of your glass and the waiters are purposefully grumpy. The food comes as it is ready, which for our large group was perfect. One adult was able to eat while the others helped the kids.
The kids loved the walk back to the hotel after dinner. One of the advantages of it getting dark so early is enjoying the lights with the children. The whole city looks like pure magic.
We passed quickly through the Elm Market to see it all lit up, but it was growing more and more crowded.
When Jeff and Simon headed back out to have a drink and enjoy the ambiance without the children the markets were all packed solid. We were glad to have the kids tucked in, but getting out into the market in the evening is part of the experience.
Saturday morning we were the first ones in town awake! Jeff popped over to the bakery across the street from the hotel to grab some pastries and coffee while I got kids up and dressed. We headed directly to the Cologne Cathedral. The building opens at 6am, making it perfect for a morning visit if you’re already up (like we typically are.) There are quite a few things to see inside and viewing depends on the Mass schedule, so check online before you visit.
We had the Cathedral mostly to ourselves early in the morning. We couldn’t get close to the Shrine of the Magi, containing bones from the three wisemen due to a service taking place in that area, but we were able to see it from afar. There is an official app for the church you can download here that will help you navigate the hours and works to see inside the church. There is also an app for kids visiting the church that is worth checking out.
To climb the tower you’ll need to exit the church and head to a set of stairs that takes you underneath the church (to the right when facing the front doors). The climb costs a few Euros. We were the first ones to head up the stairs that morning, which gave the kids plenty of time to climb the 533 steps. The 4 year old climbed the whole thing on his own, up and down, but not without some complaining. The 2 year old received assistance half the way up and most of the way down. I wore our littlest one in a front carrier.
Half way up you stop to see the bells. You can also hear the bells ringing throughout the day. (An audio recording of the bells is actually available for purchase here.)
When we reached the top we were literally in the clouds. We could see clouds drifting through the openings in the church above and below us. It was beautiful. On a clear day you can see the entire city stretched out below you. The morning fog had not quite burned off all the way during our visit, but the views were stunning nonetheless. We’ve climbed enough church towers and have seen towns so it was neat to be in the fog for this tower climb.
The viewing platform is fully enclosed so it felt safe to have the kids running around and self-guiding their viewing. The sad part is that most of the church has been covered in graffiti. The climb down was a bit harrowing as we met a 200 person school group which we had to pass on narrow stairways with the little ones. I was glad to be down and out of the crowd.
The market stalls were beginning to open so we headed back over to the Elf Market to pick up where we left off. There is plenty of fun shopping here and even a few rides for the kids.
We headed directly for the ice skating rink. It’s a bit costly (three times more expensive than skating on the first level of the Eiffel Tower!) but was worth the experience. Larissa and Jeff took the big kids for some skating.
There was even a place to “skate in” and get some hot chocolate.
The little ones opted to stay bundled up in the strollers. The place did not have small ice skates for them, so if you really want your tinies to skate consider bringing skates for them.
Once the whole group was reunited we started grabbing food as we headed back toward the hotel to warm up. I didn’t get photos of everything we tried, but I think we literally grabbed something from every food stall we saw. The salmon cooked over the fire (pictured above) was some of our absolute favorite.
I’m not even sure what Jeff is eating here but we ate baked sandwiches, sausages, potato pancakes, mushrooms, fried cauliflower, steak sandwiches and anything else we could find. We decided as a group we would never be sorry we tried something, but might seriously regret not eating something.
The kids’ favorite (after the sausages which they called hot dogs and consumed more of than I would like to admit) was this lady, who heated cheese and then scraped it off onto a toasted baguette.
The littles were exhausted. The cold can really take it out of them. So we headed back to the hotel to warm up for a bit. The kids played in the room, I nursed the baby and we all regained some energy before bundling up and heading back out.
We headed directly to the the Love Lock Bridge. Some cities discourage putting locks on bridges, as they add additional weight and can cause structural issues, however Cologne seems to encourage the tradition. Locks can be purchased and engraved all over town. We brought our own. The kids loved finding a place to put our locks. As luck would have it, our four year old was not excited about leaving the lock on the bridge. As we were getting ready to leave he ran back with the keys, miraculously found our lock and took it with him. Sigh.
At least we got a family photo of us placing the lock.
We walked down the waterfront to reach the Harbor Market. The view of the water and the shops lining the water is lovely. There are a few little play areas and grassy areas to enjoy in warmer weather.
The Harbor Market is small but has lots of unique craft and antique type stalls. There are boats lined with lights. It sits just in front of the Chocolate Museum, which was too crowded to check out on this trip. (We are saving that and the Cologne zoo for a summer visit.) We did grab some snacks and hot chocolate here. The plan was to ride the little train out to the Angel Market, but the train was so crowded we knew that we wouldn’t all fit on the same tram. The kids were growing restless so we cut our losses and headed back toward the hotel, passing through the Elf Market again. A key to fun travel with kids is to know when you should call it a day. You can’t do everything with kids so you must manage your expectations alongside the kids’ abilities.
We had dinner at the club level of the hotel, gave the kids some iPad time and the parents some talk time. A perfect end to our Saturday. We toyed with some group heading back out, but everyone was asleep once we got back to the room.
Sunday morning we headed to the Museum Ludwig, adjacent to the cathedral. They have a large Picasso collection and the largest collection of pop art outside of the U.S. They also have a wonderful kids program. After checking our coats and getting tickets we inquired at the desk for their kids cases. These adorable little suitcases were packed with activities for the kids to do.
The dads took the kids to the Art Lab, a space for kids while Larissa and I explored the museum. After a while the kids joined us with their cases to see some of the art for themselves.
We easily spent over an hour here.
Leaving the museum we headed out to the Saint Nicholas Market, passing by the Angel Market and through Cologne’s main shopping area. The Angel Market is quite crowded, with narrow passages between the stalls. We decided to skip this with the strollers.
The Saint Nicholas Market is small but full of cute ornaments and other little things for the kids. They rode the carousel. We ate a bunch more. I also took the big kids into the craft cabin where people were on hand to help them complete a few crafts. H chose to color some Christmas Postcards while B opted to make a beautiful tissue paper flower, which they hung on a tree branch.
We hopped the Metro back across town, saving our legs from the walk and started the drive back to The Netherlands. Cologne is the best Christmas Market I’ve been to. We will certainly be back to Cologne, as the city still has a lot to offer.
For more information and inspiration on Christmas Markets check out Why German Christmas Markets Should Be on Your Bucket List from the blog Shades of Courage.